How Mental Health Counselors Can Help Clients Examine Gender Labels

For those who grew up with a binary definition of men and women, it can be quite confusing to encounter people who don’t fit these categories. Not only are sex and gender different, there’s an entire planet of cultural gender constructs to wrap one’s head around. On top of this, language is polysemic and definitions overlap, meaning that trans and nonbinary people may use gender labels differently. For example, two genderqueer people may not necessarily agree on what it means to be genderqueer, and you won’t know that until you talk to them.

Now imagine you grew up with a binary definition of men and women, only to realize that you are not a man or a woman. Yes, the array of diversity in the world is beautiful, but it can also be dizzying and intimidating when you’re trying to figure out where you fit.  So how can mental health counselors help gender-explorative clients who are actively questioning their labels?

Ironically, to find a label that fits, it helps to step away from them first. Since there’s a lot of social pressure to be a well-defined person, it’s not uncommon for people to throw themselves into gender roles and stereotypes because they’re scripted. Yet this can lead to a rigid and self-limiting persona, and the kind of comparative thinking that worries: “Am I trans enough?” or “Am I nonbinary enough?”

Labels are supposed to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Instead of trying to fit a client into a box, counselors can introduce observational mindfulness to help clients describe their gender as an experience. By viewing gender as an internal experience interacting with the external world, it’s possible to observe moments of natural authenticity. 

To normalize this, consider how other facets of identity operate the same way. Personality, sexuality, and even spirituality are also internal experiences of the self that thrive through authentic expression and generate psychological distress when they’re suppressed. In A Way of Being, Carl Rogers wrote: “People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.’ I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”

By learning how to describe one’s experience more than judge it, control it, or label it, a pattern begins to emerge. For some, their experience of gender is constant throughout their lives. Obviously, cisgender people align with their assumed gender at birth (AGAB), but some trans and nonbinary people are well aware of their gender from the very beginning! Even if they go through an awakening—an epiphany when their egg cracked—they may realize their gender was present the whole time, albeit hidden from themselves. 

Of course, other people have a very different experience. For some, their sense of gender may feel like it’s changed over time, or like they oscillate between two or more gender identities. And for others, their gender may feel nebulous, vague, or absent when they look inside themselves.

To practice mindful observation, some counselors present their clients with a list of descriptive words to choose from. Some ask their clients to write a journal, make a timeline, or dive into the world of symbolism through art or sandplay therapy. As certain words bubble up, they begin to approximate a label, which the client may resonate with or not, as the case may be. 

During periods of self-exploration, clients may try on a label, swap them out for something more accurate, or accrue multiple labels over time. To foster a safe space for exploration, counselors reframe self-doubt as an intrinsic need for affirmation and personal growth. If a label feels wrong, restrictive, or emotionally claustrophobic, it may be time to let it go or redefine the term.

Once again, while gender doesn’t adhere to a rigid taxonomy, it can be useful to explore the range of labels used to describe some of these gender experiences. For more on the subject and the following terminology, read Accepting Gender: An ACT Workbook for Trans and Nonbinary People.

Gender Umbrellas

Umbrella labels can be very useful, as they can help a person identify their gender in a broad way, even if they’re not certain of the specifics yet. They’re also strategically defensive, as they can communicate the fundamentals without getting into detail.

Transgender: As one of the most common labels, transgender includes anyone who transforms, transgresses, transmutes, or transitions from their AGAB, like trans men, trans women, trans mascs, trans femmes, and trans nonbinary people.

Nonbinary: Simply put, nonbinary includes anyone whose gender isn’t binary. It is a very broad, inclusive term that some use to describe the whole of their gender (“I’m nonbinary), some use as a simplification of their gender (“I’m gender-fluid, but I tell people at work I’m nonbinary”), and some use as a foundational launching point of their gender (“I’m a nonbinary agender person”).  

Transmasculine: Often overlapping with trans and/or nonbinary, the term transmasculine can include anyone assigned female at birth (AFAB) who resonates with masculinity, like trans men, AFAB demiboys, and AFAB nonbinary people.

Transfeminine: Often overlapping with trans and/or nonbinary, transfeminine can include anyone assigned male at birth (AMAB) who resonates with femininity, like trans women, AMAB demigirls, and AMAB nonbinary people.

Queer: Recognizing how sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity overlap, queer includes anyone who plays with, distorts, or rebels against gender norms, like butch, femme, and drag culture. Those who object to the term queer may prefer gender nonconforming. This very broad label transcends specific genders and may be used by trans, nonbinary, and cisgender people—particularly cisgender people in the gay and lesbian community.  

Cisgender: Anyone who aligns with their AGAB. Cisgender is an overarching umbrella term since the gender constructs of cisgender men and cisgender women differ culturally around the world and have changed a great deal throughout the course of history.

Gender-neutral and Genderless

Some people are gender-neutral or feel like they have no gender. For this population, gender euphoria is often experienced when they can reject, remove, or minimize the impact of gender norms and gender roles from their personal, social, and occupational environments.

Agender: Used as both a specific label for gender identity and an overarching umbrella term, agender describes anyone who is either gender neutral or has no gender.

Genderfree: People who are genderfree experience the liberty of being genderless. When they explore their internal sense of self, they may feel like they have transcended gender constructs, or that they were born unchained to gender to begin with.

Gendervoid: Someone may gravitate towards gendervoid when they have no internal sense of gender. This can make mindful explorations initially confusing, since they’re essentially exploring what isn’t there. However, gendervoid people often find reflections of themselves in genderless characters in books, TV, and videogames.

Graygender: People who are graygender experience a strong sense of gender ambivalence. There’s an intriguing amount of diversity here, as some may have no sense of gender, whereas others may have a gender though it’s a very small or faint aspect of their identity. Graygender people are often the first to shrug off gender-related questions as irrelevant.  

Neutrois: Can include anyone who is genderless or distinctly gender neutral. While anyone in the agender spectrum can undergo hormone therapy or surgery to reduce or minimize sex phenotypes, some Neutrois people distinguish themselves by this transition. Transition, of course, is not a requirement for Neutrois or any gender identity. 

Intensity, Partiality, and Fluidity

Some gender identities are uniquely defined by their felt intensity, their partiality, or their fluidity between two or more gender constructs. To describe this metaphorically, imagine you’re listening to a radio. Felt intensity is the volume being turned up and down, partiality is when you pick up noise from two or more radio stations, and fluidity is changing back and forth between radio stations.

Demigender: People who feel like their gender either has a low intensity or is partial or fractional, may connect with the term demigender. Some may describe the volume of their gender being turned down, or like this part of their gender is only one piece of an incomplete pie chart. Demigender is also an umbrella term, including demi-boys, demi-men, demi-girls, and demi-women.

Genderflux: For genderflux people, the intensity of their gender may fluctuate up and down, so it’s not uncommon for genderflux people to have extreme ends to their wardrobe. As an umbrella term, genderflux includes boyflux (fluctuating between hypo-masculine, masculine, and hyper-masculine), girlflux (fluctuating between hypo-feminine, feminine, and hyper-feminine), as well as a range of genderfluid people who not only fluctuate in gender intensity, but across genders as well. 

Genderfluid: The term genderfluid includes anyone who has multiple genders, gender roles, or gender expression that they flow or oscillate between over time, or in response to certain contexts. Genderfluid people have a unique time when it comes to gender exploration, as they may have to accept and affirm more than one state of gender or gender identity.

Polygender: The term polygender overlaps with genderfluid, as it includes anyone who has two or more genders, including but not limited to bigender or trigender people. Though not always the case, some favor the term polygender when their respective gender identities are less fluid and more rigidly defined.

Expansive and Unrestrained

Questioning the social constructs of gender itself, some people use expansive and unrestrained labels to communicate how their gender doesn’t fit into society’s preconceived notions. Often, the specifics of these terms are highly individual, as their whole function is to describe a sense of self that’s already outside the box.   

Genderqueer: An inclusive label for anyone whose gender identity transgresses or queers gender norms, gender roles, and gender expression. More than just a precursor for the term nonbinary, genderqueer leans into liminality and uniqueness. While genderqueer and queer certainly overlap, this label clearly emphasizes the queering of a person’s gender identity, which is distinct from queering gender expression.

Androgyne: Among the diverse nonbinary people, Androgynes actively feel like a hybrid, blurring masculinity and femininity to create androgyny. They often feel a sense of euphoria when people can’t tell if they’re a man or a woman, as they’re both and neither at the same time.

Genderfuck: Resonating with rebelliousness, a genderfuck person juxtaposes masculinity and femininity to revel in the absurdity of gender. They may “fuck” with gender by breaking the norms. They may also have more than one label, as they’re unlikely to be tied down to any categorical concept. Playing off the acronym MtF or FtM, genderfucks often use the term MtWtf (Male-to-What-the-fuck) or FtWtF (Female to-What-the-Fuck).

Novigender: This unique label helps people who can’t describe their felt sense of gender using words. Conceptually, it’s important to understand that a novigender person isn’t “confused”
or “at a loss” for words the same way someone new to gender exploration might be. A novigender person recognizes their internal sense of self, but language cannot encapsulate it, in the same way that using terms like “fractal” and “colorful” cannot begin to describe the beauty of a kaleidoscope.

Aporagender: Turning inwards, some people notice that their sense of gender isn’t male, female, masculine, feminine, man or woman, or any androgynous combination thereof. They do feel an intact gender identity, but is distinct from these constructs, in the same way that yellow stands far afield from pink and blue.   

Xenogender: To express their internal experience, some people create or adhere to a classification of genders outside of the man/woman, masculine/feminine paradigm. As an umbrella term, xenogender includes neurogender people whose gender is connected to their neurodiversity; noungender people who describe their gender by way of nouns like objects, animals, and archetypes; and aesthetigender people who describe their gender by aesthetics and sensory experiences.

Indigenous Genders

While the majority of the aforementioned labels originate from contemporary Western culture, many more gender identities around the world have deep cultural roots. Keeping in mind how personal gender identity is, some clients may reject contemporary Western language like transgender and nonbinary, while others may straddle worlds or code-switch between social groups. Examples include the Lhamana of the Zuni, the Baté of the Crow Nation, the Māhū in Hawai’i who originate from the Kanaka Maoli; the Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama in Samoa; the Hijra in India; the Brotherboys and Sistergirls of the First Nation people of Australia; and the Whakawahine and Wakatane who originate from the Māori in New Zealand. 

For Indigenous and multicultural people exploring their gender, there can be a deep introspective period incorporating and reconciling their identity with their community and their heritage.

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Alex Stitt is a nonbinary author, queer theorist, and licensed mental health counselor living in Hawaii. As a proud Queer Counselor, they work to educate professionals in the mental health field interested in working with LGBTQ+ populations. Their textbook, ACT for Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide, demonstrates how to apply Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to gender self-actualization.